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Sustainability refers to the condition of being produced or sustained indefinitely without a negative consequence to the environment or depleting resources. Sustainability in fashion refers to reducing the carbon footprint of the industry, particularly the fast fashion industry. Efforts in sustainable fashion, also known as eco-fashion, began in America after the publication of The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The works of Deep Ecologists of the ranks of Arne Naess and Fritjof Capra and designer Victor Papanek provided the principles of sustainability to the movement. As global warming is increasing and waste production by humans knows no bounds, the fashion industry desperately needs to undergo a sustainable revolution. A copious amount of toxic and non-toxic waste is generated every day by the fashion industry and pollutes land and oceans. A 2019 report by UNEP states that the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is burned or ends up in a landfill every second. The expression of the human self should not adversely affect the planet, therefore, it is crucial for the fashion industry to take stock of its practices and envision a more sustainable future.
According to a report by the Geneva Environment Network, the fashion industry accounts for more than 2.5 trillion USD and employs more than 75 million people internationally. Right from the sourcing of resources and raw materials, to their processing and marketing, everything has the potential to contribute to the increase in the carbon footprint. Every step of the process needs to be monitored in order to attain sustainability. Not only does fashion involve using a massive volume of resources like water, electricity, and land, but it also involves human resources. Fast fashion employees have borne the brunt of various human rights violations. Resources have been depleting and land, water, air, and soil have faced significant pollution.
Carbon emissions refer to the emission of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide or other gasses. Fast fashion is the most notorious in the fashion industry with respect to carbon emissions since the fast fashion industry favours quantity over quality. The 2019 UNEP Report mentions that if business is conducted as usual in the fashion industry then it will use up the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Since fashion is related to trends, it changes frequently and past products can lose value soon. To make fashion more accessible, brands compromise quality in favour of quantity and reduce prices which leads to more and more production and consequent consumption. Unlike the past wherein clothes would last longer and even be passed through generations, fast fashion encourages one-time consumption of clothes. People wear an article of clothing once and discard it to buy another clothing in trend. This increases the production of short-lived clothing in a geometric progression which results in copious amounts of carbon emissions. The fundamental principle underlying the revenue model of fast fashion is more sales, more production, and more revenue. It does not take cognizance of the quality of the products being produced. In fact, it works in the favor of fast fashion when low-quality garments are produced because they will be quickly discarded by the consumer who will then return to buy more. The fast fashion model is a bottomless pit. It is a beast that cannot be satiated regardless of how much it is fed. A sustainable revolution is the need of the hour to break the vicious circle perpetuated by fast fashion.
Fair pay to workers is a cornerstone of sustainable fashion. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh in 2013 was a paradigm-shifting catastrophe in the fashion industry. More than 1100 people, mostly workers, succumbed and 2500 people were injured. It is the fourth largest industrial disaster and woke the world up from its slumber to fight for the rights of workers in the fashion industry. The anger stemmed internationally and exposed the exploitative mechanism of some of the most popular brands in the world. A system that does not respect its workers would never be able to commit to the ideals of sustainable fashion. Fashion Revolution Week was instituted in order to mourn the tragic death of the people and is observed on the 24th of April every year. It prioritizes environmental conservation and social equity in opposition to profit and market forces.
Various countries have sought international cooperation to combat the unsustainability of current fashion practices. The UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion has been instituted to identify solutions to existing problems in the global fashion industry and make it sustainable. Most fast fashion articles are made from synthetic clothing like polyester which contributes to the addition of microplastics in the sewage and the water bodies in every single wash. Impulsive buying and the concept of retail therapy have led to an increase in impulsive purchases. Online shopping has also added immediacy and impulsivity to purchases. While it has made fashionable clothing accessible to the middle class and democratised fashion, it has also contributed to banal purchases. The United Nations Organization has also taken up significant steps to infuse sustainability in the fashion industry. Moreover, considering the impulsive nature of fast fashion shopping, consumers should be self-aware and capable of identifying when they actually need a garment and when they are being influenced into buying a garment by social media or trends.
Slow fashion refers to the ideology opposite to that of fast fashion. Items made under the parasol of slow fashion are produced with the intention of having a longer shelf life. Ideally, they are not discarded with changing trends and are only disposed of when worn out. The idea is to reduce the carbon emission of the production process to the minimum and ensure that minimum articles reach landfills. It is one of the ways of infusing sustainability into the fashion industry. However, slow fashion is not accessible and affordable for everyone. It is expensive and not available in all places. The Sustainability Revolution in the fashion industry needs to take stock of such disparities and democratise slow fashion. Slow fashion, however, does not imply that one cannot purchase fast fashion articles. It implies that even if one can financially afford only fast fashion articles, they do not discard them after one wash. If the article is being used for its entire life cycle, the activity becomes a part of the slow fashion movement. However, to boost sales and coax people to buy more and more, many companies intentionally produce fabrics that lose their structural integrity after a couple of washes. Corporations need to be made accountable for the manufacturing materials and processes they are using and elongate the life cycle of their products. Various companies launch a line of clothing as ‘green clothing’ or ‘eco-friendly’ clothing. However, this is a case of greenwashing and only pays lip service to the cause because the corporation does not take accountability for the numerous other clothing lines it houses that do not use sustainable practices. Greenwashing is the act of making unsubstantiated and misleading claims about the environmental impacts of a product or service.
The textile industry is only second to the oil industry in environmental pollution and degradation. The textile waste consists of fabrics that do not serve their purpose anymore and includes leftover fabrics, damaged fabrics, unsold fabrics, or second-hand clothing waste. Because the premise of fast fashion is the more and more production and sales of garments, where the garments that end up after being purchased are not accounted for. Fast fashion is discarded after a few uses and ends up as textile waste in landfills, oceans, or as microplastics in water bodies. Slow fashion and re-fashion are one of the ways in which consumers can take accountability for their purchases and become environmentally conscious. Forming a capsule closet, which refers to having a limited number of clothes and using a single article of clothing in multiple styles, can drastically reduce the amount of textile waste that reaches landfills. Besides individuals, the industry and the State also need to take cognizance of the disaster at hand and take action for recycling and reusing textile waste. The concept of waste does not exist in nature, everything becomes soil. It is only humans whose actions produce waste, a thing devoid of utility and harmful firstly to human civilisation and then to the planet. Proper disposal of textile waste should be the responsibility undertaken by the corporation and the State.
Many individuals believe that recycling textiles does not resolve the root issue of the problem. Recycling in itself is an energy-intensive process and utilizes various renewable and non-renewable resources. Alternatives like slow fashion, capsule wardrobe, or rental clothes appear to be more sustainable options from this point of view.
Biodegradability and sustainability are critical aspects of any ecologically conscious enterprise. The material revolution in the fashion industry aims to marry the two concepts as well. It refers to the inclination in the fashion industry towards biodegradable and sustainable materials. It should be a cause of concern for the producer as well as the consumer to be aware of the material components of the garment. Clothes made of microfibre plastic materials like polyester release microplastics that end up in the river network and harm the aquatic and the human population. Even the supposedly eco-friendly, biodegradable fabrics like cotton are not entirely sustainable because of the copious amount of water it uses. 1 kg of cotton is produced with 20,000 litres of water. The fashion industry uses 1.5 trillion litres of water annually. Therefore, simply because the fabric does not contain microplastics and is biodegradable does not mean it is sustainable. Biodegradability and sustainability are not homophonic and have different parameters.
As consumers become more and more environmentally conscious, brands have started focussing on production using sustainable practices to cater to the newly emerging ecologically conscious consumer base. However, the shift towards eco-friendly practices has increased the demand for cotton which is a water and pesticide-intensive crop. Cotton is being cultivated on a large scale without sustainable practices which created the demand for organic cotton farming. Organic cotton refers to the cultivation of cotton without adding synthetic chemicals or pesticides that alter the biodiversity of the region. Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) and other certifications have been set up to encourage industries to follow sustainable practices and norms for the cultivation of organic cotton. Indian fashion brands like Nicobar and Upasana have also been actively involved in the responsible cultivation and sourcing of textile materials.
Handcrafted garments and accessories have been replaced by industries, technology, and machinery today, yet their importance has never been more glaringly visible as it is now. The inherent sustainability of the process and its slow-paced nature is a necessary demand in the times we live in. Understanding the ancient traditions of the past can help us carve our way forward in a sustainable manner. The mass production of fast fashion is devoid of personality and individuality. Yet, local items have their own individuality and are one of a kind even when produced under a business model because they are being handcrafted by an artisan. It is not humanly possible to produce two identical pieces of art and every piece has imperfections that are unique to itself. However, the risk of cultural appropriation should also be factored in while looking for local products. Many corporations appropriate the identity of local craftspeople and produce garments without a fair wage system or connection to the craft they are marketing. To give a boost to indigenous craft and revive local craft, efforts need to be made to support local artists and manufacturers which would in return help in generating employment and help the economy of the area and at the same time be eco-friendly.
It has been made amply clear that the fashion industry is in desperate need of a sustainable revolution that can reverse the ecological damage done till now. However, sustainability is not just an ecological issue. Unchecked industrialism that emerged in Britain demanded raw materials for textile production from the colonies. The consequences of prioritising profit over ecological balance, social stability, fair labour practices, and wages have accumulated over the centuries and taken the shape of a disaster waiting to happen. It is required that people all over the planet adopt practices that not only help make the fashion industry more sustainable but also contribute to the growth of society as a whole so that another Rana Plaza incident does not need to be commemorated through Fashion Revolution Week. The revolution is definitely needed in the fashion industry and its waves should be felt across other sectors as well.
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